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Birmingham's Pioneers and Education
The earliest settlers in Oakland County were mostly from New York, Pennsylvania, and other eastern states. Though often from well-educated families, they often were not themselves very well-off. Coming to the Michigan Territory in the early 1820s gave them new opportunities to farm the land and start businesses.
Bringing their young families with them, one of the pioneers’ first priorities after clearing the land and providing food was education. Settlers’ children in a given area would gather together in a barn or other structure, share books, and begin rudimentary lessons. As soon as they could afford it, locals would pool funds to pay the meager salary of the frontier schoolteacher—room and board with a small stipend. (Images: 1825 Risdon Map, Detail, 1836 McGuffey Reader, courtesy Wikipedia Commons)
1820s-1850s: Log Cabin Schools
This simple log building was built in a manner similar to that used by Birmingham’s first settlers. After becoming established, pioneers often built frame houses, but continued to use the sturdy log structures for various purposes. In Birmingham, the first schooling took place in log cabins on both Ziba Swan’s land (near Quarton and Woodward) and on John Hamilton’s land (abutting Woodward at Hamilton in downtown Birmingham).
Settlers valued education, although no public school system yet existed. While in a city students would pay tuition, in the wilderness it was common to provide firewood in lieu of payment. The first teacher at Hamilton’s school was Captain Hervey Parke, who took the job in 1820-21 while waiting for the go-ahead to start surveying Oakland County, then part of the vast wilderness of territorial Michigan. Parke boarded with John West Hunter, later living in an unused outbuilding (probably of log) on the Hunter property. (Images: Early Montcalm County, MI log cabin, courtesy MIGenWeb; Hervey Parke portrait courtesy Findagrave.com)
1856: The Red Schoolhouse
Elijah Willits sold an acre of land to Fractional School District #1 of Troy and Bloomfield Townships, and a schoolhouse of local brick was built in 1856. It provided tuition-free education for lower grades. Student attendance was optional. Often called “the ‘Little’ or ‘Old’ Red Schoolhouse,” it was a comfortable building in what was then the current Gothic style. It operated for twelve years, and one of its later teachers was Birmingham’s Martha Baldwin.
When Harry and Marion Allen built the Allen House (now the Birmingham Museum) on the same site in 1928, the red school building was still standing. They tried to reuse it as part of their new house, but were only able to save a part of the wall. If you look carefully at the brick front of the Allen House at the east end of the large porch (at the corner of the gray arched addition), you can make out the outlines of the school’s window openings that were bricked in for the new house, with the stone window sill still there. (Images, Birmingham Museum)
1850s-1867: The Academy
The Academy provided private secondary education to Birmingham students on the upper floor of a frame building owned by Roswell T. Merrill at Mill (Maple) and Pierce Streets. Reverend Samuel Hill taught class to older students who paid a fee. At the time, there was no compulsory education requirement in the State of Michigan. The only way for secondary students to pursue their education after graduating from the Red Schoolhouse was to find private schooling. When the Academy building burned in 1867, the community pushed to get a new, larger school built to serve all ages. This led to the building of the Union School (later Hill School, after Rev. Hill). Like other promising Birmingham students, Martha Baldwin attended the Academy. (Images: Detail of 1872 Beers map and young Martha Baldwin, Birmingham Museum)